The Garden at the Edge of the Desert
My arrival in Yazd was far from smooth, but it was saved from being an absolute disaster by several mitigating factors (chief among them the fact that I eventually made it into town). It was 8:30pm by the time my bus pulled into the station on the outskirts of Iran’s driest city, and already dark—I had watched the sun disappear behind distant, desiccated mountains in a ball of orange fire moments before, through a dusty window as the women beside me struggled to placate the infant on her lap. Scrambling from the bus into the warm night air, I avoided the boisterous taxi drivers and hauled myself to what appeared to be a bus stop.
Soon a young man looking suspiciously like a taxi driver sidled up to me. “No bus,” said he. “Holiday.” It was a Friday, effectively the Islamic State’s Sunday, and also Al-Quds Day—an annual event held to call for “the liberation of Jerusalem” (more often used to decry Israel, America, and anyone else who is currently irritating the Iranian regime). Sheer bloody mindedness at this stage contributed to my predicament. I flatly refused the offer of a slightly cheaper taxi ride into the center, and instead stalwartly awaited the apparently non-existent bus. To no-one’s surprise, it didn’t materialize.
I began to walk away towards the highway in the hope of more luck there, when I caught sight of a city bus pulling into the stop. Hurrah! Thought I, I have prevailed! And I sprinted back, backpack exuberantly bouncing on my hips. Having patiently listened to a labored explanation of where I wanted to go, the driver bade me climb aboard, his only passenger. And off we went: into the dark night, the lights of Yazd twinkling merrily in the distance, the evening azan (call to prayer) blasting out from surrounding mosques. A profound sense of peace and smugness—the type that stems from outwitting nefarious taxi drivers and being self-sufficient (or stingy, I suppose)—washed over me.
The bus promptly pulled over and my driver, presumably fasting for Ramazan, hopped out. Hurrying over to a mosque he collected something then hurried back, presenting me with a glass of what I thought was water. Taking a sip, the sugar hit first, then the perfumed fog of rosewater. I thanked the driver profusely for this flowery offering, and we continued on our way, speeding not towards the city, but further around its outer ring road. Having arrived at our final destination (which appeared to be a bus graveyard) my kindly driver refused payment, then dumped me unceremoniously on the deserted sidewalk. “No more bus,” he said, lugubriously. “Bus finished.” A quick glance at Google maps advised me that I was 8 miles from my intended guesthouse. I started walking.
As I trudged around a traffic circle with a small garden in its center, I had brief thoughts of setting up camp among the stunted trees to wait until morning. Had it been a couple hours later, I might have done so. Instead, I marched on, along the edge of a highway. Shortly, a sharp beep was sounded, and an ancient Iranian-made vehicle pulled up beside me, an old man gazing curiously out. I gave the address, we agreed on a fair price, and eventually I was headed in the correct direction—into Yazd, the desert city’s blue-lit minarets beaming surreally into the darkness.
Yazd sits slap-bang in the middle of Iran, tucked between the country’s two great desserts: the Dasht-e Lut to the south, and the Dasht-e Kavir to the north. The historic center (or “texture” as local signposts have it) is made up of mud-brick buildings and a tangle of winding alleyways. Aesthetically, it looks like nothing you’ve seen before—except maybe Tatooine, Luke Skywalker’s home in the original Star Wars. Turn a corner and you’ll likely as not bump into a high, sand-coloured dome, one of the city’s old water reservoirs, the contents of which are kept cool by badgirs (wind towers) that jut upwards from the windowless structures like a mosque’s minarets. Gazing across the city’s skyline, these badgirs are its most distinctive feature—Yazd’s answer to New York’s iconic water towers.
Walk the streets of Yazd in the afternoon, and you might be mistaken for thinking the town had been deserted long ago: during the summer, especially in Ramazan, few people bother to brave the heat of the day, and most shops are closed. The city is quiet, the cooing of doves secluded behind high mud walls audible in the calm. Only as the sun begins to dip towards the horizon, the endless blue sky giving way to purple dusk, do Yazdis emerge. The inconstant splutter of motorbikes, careering with unseemly haste through the narrow lanes, becomes the evening’s soundtrack, as family members rush to collect iftar ingredients. Fathers pick up hot sheaves of sangak, women carry armloads of herbs. At one stage I spot a scooter speeding down an alleyway, the man on the back clinging to the driver with one hand, with the other clasping two large, open trays of eggs.
In Yazd, more than elsewhere in Iran, I notice a profusion of medicinal herb stores, selling an array of dried plant products. Most purvey big buckets of tiny seeds—some grey, some golden, some reddish brown—which are mixed with water and sugar (and sometimes flavoured with rosewater or other essence) to become a kind of sharbat. Tubs of this beverage—clear but for the swirling seeds, like a microcosm of the universe—are sold by juice vendors, one of whom gives me a taste. The drink supposedly supplies a natural liver detox, but I suspect the sugar might cancel out any health benefits. It is, however, delicious, and oddly similar to the chia seeds drinks that have taken off among the New York Wholefoods set.
But the real specialty of the city makes no pretense to wholesomeness: Yazdi sweets are famous throughout Iran, and the smell of crystallized sugar wafts out of many storefronts. The delicious confections typically combine nuts and spices with indecent amounts of sugar: loze nargil, for example, is a flaky-fudgy treat made with coconut flour, sugar and rosewater, while qotab is a (deep-fried?) morsel constructed from almond kernels, sugar, flour and cardamom, and given a thick coating of icing sugar. Yazdi baghlava is like a concentrated version of the syrupy Turkishbaklava: the Iranian sweet does away with the pastry element, and combines ground almond, flour, sugar, pistachio and cardamom into dense diamonds of calorific flavor. When I approach the city’smost famous sweetshop, I am overwhelmed by choice, and the smiling sales assistant provides me with a selection of sweets to taste. By the time I’m done, the thought of more sugar is physically painful, and I sidle out without making a purchase.
Even in very conservative Yazd, it seems, people are eager to feed a curious foreigner during Ramazan; men busy deep-frying sweets ply me with syrupy, lace-like pastries that I cannot refuse. But the devout religiosity for which Yazd is known glimmers through in other ways: most of the city’s girls, some who look as young as five, wear hijab, while the majority of the women I see choose to don the chador. Despite the city’s intensely dry heat, nobody can be seen eating or drinking in public between sunrise and sunset.
Yet Yazd is also the center of a very different faith, boasting numerous sites important to the country’s extant Zoroastrian community. Before Arab hordes swept across the Iranian plateau in the 7th century, bringing Islam with them, Zoroastrianism was the major religion of this region. The Zoroastrians’ prophet was Zartosht, born around 1000BC (or as late as the 6th century BC), and their god—for this was one of the world’s first monotheist religions—was Ahura Mazda. The faith was dualistic, centered on the idea of an eternal battle between good and evil, both of which coexist within Ahura Mazda and the world itself. Zoroastrians are encouraged to pursue good thoughts, good words, and good actions, and, since love, light and brightness are governing precepts, fire is used in their religious worship. Iran’s Zoroastrian population has shrunk to around 30,000 people, with 4000 or so in Yazd.
A relatively modern, still-active Zoroastrian fire temple clings to the edge of the old city: a somewhat banal building, with the Fravashi (guardian spirit) symbol above the entrance, the temple contains a sacred flame said to have been burning continuously since the fifth century AD. More spectacular are the Towers of Silence (called simply Dakhmeh by Yazdis) on the southwestern outskirts of the city. Zartosht preached the purity of each element, so Zoroastrians traditionally do not bury their dead or cremate them—mingling the body with the earth or sky or fire is seen as a pollution. Instead, the dead were exposed to the rapacious appetites of vultures in poetically named “towers of silence.” Their bones were soon picked clean by birds and scoured by the sun, dropping down into ossuary pits within the towers where they gradually disintegrated.
Yazd’s towers are oddly evocative, despite being almost engulfed by urban sprawl; two crumbling, flat-topped stone structures perched on small, sun-bleached hills just beyond a university faculty and a new residential development. When I visited, no-one else was there, and a hot wind whipped through the valley between the towers, raising little puffs of dust and swirling my hijab. The towers are no longer in use, and gazing down from their height one can just make out the modern Zoroastrian graveyard nearby, where the faithful are now buried in cement-lined coffins to prevent contamination.
Yazd’s inhabitants may once have all worshiped fire as a symbol of the Supreme Being, but water is arguably now the city’s most precious element—and its scarcest. Of course, all of Iran experiences critical water shortages, but it is in Yazd that I first become overly aware of this. The municipality has clearly got the memo as well, since billboards exhorting passers-by to conserve water at a household level are abundant (although probably not super effective. In Esfahan a young Iranian man told me that the country’s water shortage was the fault of careless women who ran the tap while doing the dishes. Yazd’s campaign would seem to back up such assertions, yet the problem is more due to chronic mismanagement and overuse on a very large scale than to uneducated housewives. Besides, why aren’t the men doing the dishes?).
All this is particularly distressing, since Iran has long kept itself supplied with water through an ingenious system of qanats: gently sloping underground tunnels—something like subterranean aqueducts—which for over two millennia have conveyed water from the mountains to the plains. The water was stored in reservoirs (like Yazd’s dome-shaped wonders) and collected from deep shafts dug down into the stream. Now, qanats are threatened by modern technology that is rapidly depleting natural aquifers.
The great glory and extreme efficiency of the qanat became apparent to me when I ventured outside Yazd, to a nearby village called Aqda. It is here, in a dried-up ruin of a mud-brick town slowly returning to the dust from whence it came, that I fully understand why paradise (behesht) is, in Persian culture, always pictured as a garden. (In fact, the English word “paradise” derives from the Old Persian “pardes” which signified “park” or “garden.”) My visit to Aqda was one of those gifts thrown up by the road occasionally: the outcome of a chance encounter with two young German hitchhikers (Heiner and Emil), whom I had last seen a month back, at the Iranian Embassy in Trabzon.
Extremely tall and extremely blond, the Germans strode into my guesthouse in Yazd and we immediately exchanged cries of greeting, amused by the good fortune of running into each other again. They were, they told me, on their way to a small nearby village, where they had made some friends and discovered paradise. “The best place I have ever been in my entire life,” as one of them—all of 19 years old—put it. They would hitch there tomorrow, they said. Would I like to join them? I jumped at the chance. So the next day, carrying only my small black purse (I left my backpack in Yazd, along with my camera, unfortunately) and accompanied by two very large Germans carrying very large bags, I set off into the desert.
We stood on the highway for two minutes before a small black sedan stopped and the driver—who spoke no English—ushered us in and began questioning Emil, it seemed, about whether he kept a journal. A short, baffling ride later, and we had been deposited once again on the highway. While Heiner engaged a trucker in conversation (trying to explain hitch-hiking is not always easy. Here, the simplest way to get by is to say “salavati,” which means, as I understand it, “for free” but in a polite and somewhat pious way), I wildly waved my arms around at passing vehicles. Seconds later, a man who looked a lot like he had stepped out of 70s Miami (pink scarf, tan, moustache, jewellery) approached, speaking impeccable English. “Where you wanna go?” he asked, and I almost whooped with relief.
Our driver was maneuvering a truck from Yazd to Tehran to collect a load; Aqda was on his way, and he was happy to drive us there—squished together like sweaty sardines in the small cabin, the boys’ backpacks rolling around in the back—while regaling us with stories of his service in the Iran-Iraq war, and his work as a trucker from Iran to Europe. We alighted from the vehicle feeling we had made a great friend, and walked through the blazing midday heat into the village center, where we were soon accosted by a police car, whose occupants wanted to know what a female tourist was doing wandering through an isolated village. Luckily, we had been met by Reza—a kid of maybe 15—who somehow smoothed things over (the cops were quite keen to drive me to a hotel).
The German’s friends turn out to be a rag-tag group of a half-dozen boys, ranging in age from Reza, the youngest and predictably the one who gets bossed around by the rest, to Ehsan, perhaps in his early 30s. Aqda, one of them explained to me later on, had been fully populated until thirty years ago (around the time of the revolution, or just after, I suppose) after which date an urban exodus began. The villagers moved to Yazd, or Shiraz, or Tehran, while those who stayed (around 1500 people) generally shunned the ancient city for the modern houses that cling to its edges. We see the occasional woman wrapped in chador, or a father taking his kids for a spin on a motorbike. The town’s main shopping center seems to be the cavernous store at the gas station, adjacent to the highway.
The decrepit old town is constructed like a small-scale Yazd but seems entirely deserted. The thick mud-brick walls are cracking, roofs have caved in, mosques stand empty. But here and there appear are signs of life: a dish of grapes left to shrivel into raisins in the sun, the murmuring of well-fed doves, the swish-swush of a reed broom somewhere industriously sweeping. Push through splintering wooden doors hidden down alleyways, and you discover hidden courtyards of giant fig trees, and orange trees waiting for fruit. You could walk miles just along the level rooftops—where the boys say the villagers used to sleep in the summertime, in their grandparents’ day.
Charming and atmospheric as the town is, Aqda’s real glory is its gardens: a lush swathe of green bursting from the barren khaki of the desert. We are staying at Aqda’s northern edge, in a modern, modest brick house wedged between the magnificent old city walls and the deep shade of the gardens. Step out of the front door onto the stone-cobbled lane, and you meet a slender joob (canal) burbling merrily through the center of the road. This water is transported to the parched plains by aqanat under the desert from a spring in the nearby mountains, and even without apparently regular maintenance it has kept the spacious gardens flourishing. A few paces down, and a woman in a patterned chador may be doing her washing. A couple steps further on, and the town gives way entirely to narrow dirt paths made narrower by the laden branches bowing down from gardens on either side.
The fig trees are just beginning to produce fruit—fat and soft and sweet as honey—and apples and grapes are abundant. Mulberry trees are few and far between, but those that are there reward the enthusiastic plucker. Small groves of pistachio huddle in a barren dirt patch further off, a beaten-up truck parked under the tree’s low-hanging branches for shade. Pomegranate is possibly Aqda’s most flourishing fruit tree (Ehsan tells me they export Aqda pomegranates across the world, and make pomegranate wine from the excess), but the grenade-shaped fruits are not ripe at the time we go—still firm and small and expectant, like the belly of a pregnant woman with some months to wait.
The endless supply of fresh produce is merely the punctuation in the culinary epic the boys feed us—each taking a turn to call on his friend at the gas-station restaurant, or (more commonly) his mother, to supply us with nourishment. When we first arrive, Reza’s mother does the honors, and a pot of spiced kofte (meatballs) in a saffron broth is brought, and eaten (only by the guests) with bread hot from the oven. The first of many watermelons is ritually split apart and devoured. Later in the day, Reza runs out and returns with huge tubs of ice-cream—one for each of us. The confection is a pale golden color, flavoured with saffron and rosewater. Reza says it is made fresh in the village (although goodness knows where), and maybe it is this information that makes each cool mouthful taste like the best ice-cream I’ve ever eaten.
Breakfast, meatballs, a pint of ice-cream and several kilos of fruit into the day, and we’re expected to eat Styrofoam boatloads of saffron-butter rice accompanied by kebab (plus the attendant trimmings: a roast tomato, pickled purple cabbage, green chillies, bread, and cucumber-garlic yoghurt) for dinner. At the end of the meal, Reza looks sadly down at my dish, containing a meagre speck of leftover rice. “Why you don’t eat?” he asks, with infinite sadness.
The kindness showered down on us travelers by the boys (which extended even and perhaps especially to me, the Girl. The Germans were actually unsure how the all-male troupe would react to my presence and indeed conversation was stilted for the first five minutes, before they warmed up to me) is astounding.
But then again, perhaps it’s refreshing to have something to do. A sense of frustration and boredom lurks beneath the surface of the boys’ comradely banter (in Farsi, since they speak very limited English). Their lives look, outwardly, like a dream or a children’s story: a group of boys living at the edge of the desert, cocooned by gardens. When they’re hot, there’s a pool in a nearby abandoned courtyard to splash in; when they want excitement, they race through the desert on their old motorbikes, chasing each other around the “circle of death” (a deep depression in the sand) in an adrenalin-filled game of chicken; when they want to relax—which is most of the time—they lie around on carpets, challenging each other to endless rounds of backgammon or cards.
Yet most of them express a desire to leave, and the underemployment that is a symptom of Iran’s struggling economy is painfully apparent. The boys joke darkly about the “Ali Babas” (thieves or tricksters) in the government, and eagerly try to explain their country’s history and current predicament. Given the heat of the day, we spend much time indoors, blinds drawn, as Fidel Castro, the confederate flag, Benjamin Netanyahu and the nuclear negotiations flicker across the tiny television screen, to a soundtrack of jaunty Persian dancing music and Selena Gomez.
When the time comes for me to leave, I am chauffeured the hour or so back to town by one of the Lost Boys, in a car a friend has lent him while his own is treated for overheating. A steady whine accompanies the air-conditioning, so the car is either stifling or deafening, and our conversation is stilted given my terribly basic Farsi and his limited English. I manage to encourage his dream to move to Germany, while he manages to advise me never again to stay in a house with many strange boys. “In Aqda is OK,” he says. “People in Aqda are good.” In Shiraz, he says, this would not be appropriate—when people look at me (“sorry!”) all they see is SEX. This earnest advice almost makes me laugh out loud, considering my current deplorable state, but I restrain myself out of courtesy and leap out at Yazd’s busy intersection, murmuring my thanks.
The only thing remaining to do in this desert trading hub—and the primary reason I managed to tear myself away from the Aqda idyll—was securing a visa extension. The longer-than-expected process of obtaining a month-long tourist visa in the first place has left me wary of Iranian bureaucracy and visiting the “tourist police” did not appeal. But time was pressing: with the three day Eid al-Fitr holiday coming up (marking the end of Ramazan), I effectively had only one day in which to convince Yazd’s officials to grant me another month.
Horror stories about point-blank refusals and tortuous waiting periods ticked through my head, but the process turned out to be remarkably simple: an early morning jog to the office, a swift bank deposit, and my visa was available within four hours (on the condition that I first check the accuracy of the “English sayings” in the textbook that the friendly tourist-liaison officer had just purchased. I did so happily). The unfortunate Afghans milling around the office, presumably struggling to maintain their work visas, glanced at me with weary resentment as I floated past, visa extension in hand, headed for Shiraz.